Written by Prithi Narayanan
Aadhya, my four-and-a-half-year-old daughter, was particularly nosy that morning. She had seen Ashwin writhing in pain and piped up “Put leave, appa!”
‘Why go to the office in pain, when you can chill at home?!’ was her thought and that brought some smiles. Even I started to tease Ash. “Ask for a snack break in two hours and come back – like kids do at school” and Ash went, “Overaaa Oturrey! (You are pulling my leg a bit too much!). Until then, it had been a tense morning. Over the years, I have seen him handle pain and know he has a high threshold for it, but I had never seen him like this. He was crawling on the floor. He couldn’t get up or bend down. I couldn’t imagine how he was going to play and the snack-break comment was said only in half-jest. As he was about to leave, he said, “I have to play. I have to get this done.”
The first signs of trouble had come the earlier evening, at the end of the fourth day’s play. I had seen him on television in some sort of pain a couple of times. When he walks into the room, he usually has just a few minutes before he rushes to the physio or masseur table and then meetings. if any, and comes back late. “Are you fine, physically?” I asked him and he shot back, “Didn’t you see me bowl?!” and said he felt he had a tweak in the back that was beginning to hurt. He felt during warm-ups that morning that he stepped awkwardly and did something to his back.
It had slowly begun to act up as the day progressed. He went to the physio. Ashwin was wracking in pain, and I knew other players too were injured. The match was still alive, and I was wondering how these guys were going to do it. As family members, our emotions are wired differently – we see them at close quarters, pain and emotion and the abnormal desire to compete and win is something I have tried to get used to, but I don’t think I will ever be able to understand it completely.
On match nights, because of the hyperactive kids – Akhira five-and-a-half, and Aadhya – I tend to sleep in a separate room with them so that he can get some rest. By the time I woke up in the morning, his pain was really bad. “I had to crawl to the physio room,” he said. Luckily, that was the next room. He couldn’t bend, straighten, or get up after sitting. I was shocked. I had not seen him like this before. ‘What are you going to do? How can you bat?’ I asked. “I don’t know. I will figure out. Just let me get to the ground,” he replied. That’s when Aadhya cracked her ‘put leave, appa’ comment. If only. Even after he left us, to be frank, I was half-expecting a call in a couple of hours from someone in the team that he had been taken to hospital for scans.
I didn’t go to the ground that day as it’s not easy in these bio-bubble times. Unlike fans, because we are with the players, our bubble works differently. I would have to walk inside the arena, beside the boundary line, to get to my seat. I had gone on Day 3 but didn’t want to go in the middle of the final day’s play. I was in the room and for the first time, gave unrestricted screen-time access to the kids. Told them to go into the other room and watch whatever they want. Sometimes, because of the kids, I tend to tune out of the match, my attention drifting in and out, but I was clear that I wanted to watch this day’s play without any interruptions.
I could see Ashwin standing in the dressing room corridor or pacing up and down on television. I knew it must be because he feared if he sat down, he couldn’t get up. That racked up my worries a bit. ‘So, he isn’t better. Haven’t the painkillers kicked in yet? Why can’t they be more effective?’ – such thoughts flitted through my head. In between, the kids’ food had to be arranged, to check if they weren’t squabbling. For the most part, though, I was plonked in front of the television the whole day.
When Ashwin was walking out to bat in pain, I was thinking ‘How these guys do what they do, only they know’.
After a scientific trial-and-error method over the years, I have worked out a sentiment that I think works when Ashwin is batting! I don’t watch him until he has reached 23-25 runs. I tend to check scores online. If I am at the ground, I can’t help it, of course, but away from it, this is my routine. His father puts on a favourite shirt and has other sentiments; I tend not to have too much. Because I am mostly travelling with him and don’t want the absence of a favourite clothing or any such thing to cast negative thoughts in us.
I had no idea what to expect when I saw him batting. The close-ups caught his face; something in me told me that he had gone to that place they call a ‘zone’. He had that look that I have seen in him before. Of course, all this is in my own head. Out there, he is taking knocks on the chest and shoulders from bouncers. I winced when one hit him on the ribs. Another knocked his hands and the physio ran out. I winced again. Coming to Australia, I knew of course that all this was par for the course on these pitches. And I know he is more than capable of handling it. But because of the back pain, I was worried that these blows could make the situation worse.
Off to Brisbane. pic.twitter.com/6ljPfmT2TT
— Prithi Ashwin (@prithinarayanan) January 12, 2021
The phone rang. It was my mother. “Amma, this is a once-in-a-hundred-years type of match going on, I can’t speak to you now” and I put the phone down. So, I guess I knew I was watching history. The enormity of the situation was unmissable. In these times, watching alone in a hotel room, Twitter is my comfort move. I don’t even speak to friends or family if it gets tense. Somehow, Twitter is easier and a good outlet for my emotions as I don’t have to engage. It’s my choice. I know when it’s best to ignore trolls.
Not that I have always been this serene. I remember a few years back, during a game against Pakistan, he was hit for runs in the last over and I was trolled and had got worked up. I have been wiser after that. Sort of!
Try as I did, I couldn’t relax as the overs ticked by. Ashwin seemed more relaxed than me. The usual Ashwin mannerisms had begun to come through. He was helping his partner. When one can do that in that situation, thinking beyond oneself, it means they were in control of their emotions. I heard him tell Hanuma, “Pathu Pathu ball, adulaaam” (We will play 10 balls each). It felt good to hear his voice. The same stump microphone would later bring up other voices, which weren’t that good! When Tim Paine started talking, my worry wasn’t what he was saying but that Ashwin was talking back. Something he hadn’t done until then. ‘Was he losing focus or is the back pain irritating him that he is reacting? What if something happens now? Don’t do it, Ash. Don’t talk back,’ I thought. I tweeted something on those lines too. That emotion was out of my body. Back to watching Ashwin.
He seemed to get back in control. He too was fighting it out. Both were talking in Tamil, more chats started to come through. I smiled as I thought I heard Ash say, “Aadu mama, aadu mama! (Play on man, Play on!). Suddenly he started to play a few shots in the end. ‘Why Ash, why? What’s happening?’ Perhaps, he was relaxing. I certainly wasn’t. The things that go through in the head, I tell you.
With five overs to go, I was puzzled. Why aren’t they shaking hands and calling it off? I began to count down every ball and when it was finally over, I started jumping around in the room. Shouting too. I wanted to get my daughters involved too in this moment. They went, “Did we win?” Ha ha ha. Perhaps, the only Indian watching who wasn’t too pleased with a ‘draw’ was our own daughter. Cute, I thought. I didn’t tell her, we didn’t win. It felt like one, after all.
I would never forget the surreal moment when Ashwin walked into the room that evening. We laughed, we cried, we laughed. We didn’t know how to react. And we howled. It wasn’t an euphoric cry – that was after the Melbourne win in the second Test. That had a different feel. I had rarely seen him that light, that bouncy, that delirious. This was something different. We were howling. It was utter relief – a draining out of emotions from our system. We just had two minutes together; he had to get back to the physio and medical scans. He came back at 11 that night. Next morning, the daughters were surprised when we said it’s time to go to a new city. “Why, aren’t you going to play today, match over?” Akhira asks. “Did we win, appa?’ the nosy one asked again.